CHRISTMAS PLAIN AND SIMPLE: On How Best to Celebrate Christmas
Christmas Day (C)
December 25, 2009
Preaching on Christmas day has always posed a big challenge to us preachers (well, at least to me, over my past 27 Christmases, including this one, as a priest). The problem is compounded for pastors in parishes who, being alone, could rely on no one else but themselves to celebrate all four Christmas liturgies: Vigil Mass, at Midnight (which officially begins the Christmas season), at Dawn, and the Mass during the day itself. Even a cursory glance at the readings for all four celebrations is enough to convince anyone that there is a developing, unfolding character to the themes espoused by the readings and the prayers.
The better read among us who are a bit more theologically literate would see in the different liturgical celebrations a gradually deepening presentation of the whole mystery that Christmas stands for - the coming of the Savior, the Christ.
From a rather factual “narration” of the events leading to the birth of Jesus (Midnight Mass), known by liturgists and theologians as an exposition of “Christology from below,” (ascending Christology), the readings shift towards a presentation of the “meaning” of said event/s, that is, a more theological understanding, not only of a historical happening, but more properly, of what theologians call the “Christ-event” (Christology from above, or descending Christology).
No. It is not my intention today to overwhelm you with this talk of “ascending and descending Christology.” Leave that to those who are trying to earn a few more letters after their name. My aim is plain and simple: to help my readers and hearers re-appropriate Christmas for what it originally was – a celebration for all and sundry, without exception, without distinction, without any form of barriers whatsoever. Let’s start out with what Scriptures clearly tell us …
First and foremost, we see that the celebration involved the following different figures: at the Midnight Mass, we see the shepherds out in the cold night fulfilling their duties; the angel who appeared to them and proclaimed to them “good news of great joy;” “the multitude of heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests;’” Joseph and Mary; and later, the wise men from the east bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Even men in high places were somehow affected by his birth. Herod grew increasingly suspicious of what he considered a potential threat to his throne, as we shall later see. Even the lowliest of creatures took part in the living tableau that was Christmas night: sheep and oxen, in contrast to the loftiest of realities which no woman, man or child could ever think or dream of – the star shining on Bethlehem!
Go and read Scriptures again and again … The first Christmas was a celebration plain and simple … and that celebration simply and plainly involved everyone and everything: poor and smelly shepherds along with sheep that were just as rank and fetid; angels sent from on high; a star shining unusually brightly; more angels pitching in to make up that huge heavenly choir that had but a few though meaningful lines as never-ending refrain: “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all men of good will;” poor ordinary men and women represented by Mary and Joseph; wise men and “fools” who were sensitive enough to notice that there must be something to the birth of this child, who was announced to be the “son of the Most High,” “Christ and Lord.”
It was a celebration plain and simple alright, from the superficial viewpoint, but manifestly, on deeper analysis, for a profound reason. It was a joyful event for everyone and everything, for simply stated, “Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord,” as today’s responsorial psalm puts it.
We moderns sure know how to celebrate. We have become resident experts on doing celebrations, in fact, with one glaring problem, at least when it comes to Christmas … we have separated the celebration from the reason for the celebration. Thus, for many, Christmas has become mere “holidays,” a generic, meaningless revelry as empty as tinsels and as puffed up as corpulent Santa Claus. The reason for the season has been quietly edged out of the whole Christmas celebrations.
We need to do a lot of catching up as Christians in the way we celebrate Christmas. For decades, we have silently and slowly been co-opted by the prevailing culture of consumerism and soul-less holiday celebrations that eat up most of our energy, leaving precious little for the ensuing days that would allow the celebrations to sink deeper down our spiritual consciousness. Have you ever noticed how right after Christmas, Christmas carols are no longer played in the airlanes with the same enthusiasm as before Christmas? Have you ever noticed how the Christmas excitement suddenly falls flat in malls and shopping centers right after Christmas day? For many, Christmas ends just when it has just begun.
Let us be countercultural once more! I guess this is what we as members of the Church ought to be essentially in this post-Christian culture of consumerism and material fun and mirth-making. Allow me to remind you of the essential REASONS for the CELEBRATIONS summed up in a few lines. Christmas is, first and foremost, a celebration of the Scriptural datum that proclaims for all to hear: SALVATION IS IN OUR MIDST. Secondly, this gift of salvation that Christ has come to bring is not just for a handful of shivering shepherds out in the cold that night, but it is a UNIVERSAL gift for everyone. Thirdly, we celebrate the Child King, because He is the “image of the invisible God,” a reflection of the GLORY of God, a representation of God Himself. Fourth and last, this child, represents the fullness of God’s revelation. Jesus is the WORD INCARNATE, the Son of God who has come to “pitch his tent in our midst.”
These four are, to say the least, supra worldly realities that are hard to fathom, difficult to dwell on, and tough to really understand. These are not the stuff out of which our shallow celebrations are made of. They are a far cry from the usual symbols that we all make so much of: food and gifts galore … Christmas trees and lights in abundance … Santa Claus, reindeer … the list could go on. The first Christmas at Bethlehem had nothing to do with most of the stuff we now equate with Christmas.
G. K. Chesterton was right… the only valid way to celebrate Christmas is to stand on one’s head and see everything upside down.
Merry Christmas to all of you!